Book Review: Running Mate, Simon Pick

This is the debut SF novel for Simon Pick and is set against a grim backdrop of politics in America. Given recent events, readers might think that the book is less far-fetched than the author intended when he started writing it 4 years ago.

The premise of the book is that the American people have been disenfranchised by politics, with the winner of the presidential race essentially being chosen at random according to whichever big businesses have funded their campaigns the most. These random elections are seen as anti-democratic – so an alternative is put in place, allowing (even encouraging) the people to end a presidency by force and trigger a fresh election. Meanwhile, artificial intelligence systems get on with the real business of government, without all the emotional turmoil that humans brings.

There are aspects of Groundhog Day in the story, in that the turnover of presidents is frequent (many last only a few days) and we repeatedly experience the fake election, investiture and then untimely death of each presidential candidate. By the end of the book, this unnervingly starts to become a new normal – the candidates themselves well know that their presidential term signals the end of their life and many have elaborate plans of how to bow out.

One of the repeated scenes is the assignment of a robot bodyguard to look after the president. The robots have artificial intelligence and impressive specifications in terms of movement and cognitive ability. In theory, having one or more such robots would be sufficient to protect the president from a lone attacker – but we see that amendments to the constitution allow the presidents sufficient free-will to override their own safety. This loop-hole limits how much physical protection the robots can give.

There are a few characters who run through the book – the permanent staff of the White House. The main ones are Archer (the technologist) and Jim (a sort of Chief of Staff), who disagree on how to deploy the robots to prolong the life of the presidents (among other things). Once the robot program is terminated, one senses that Archer will rebel, though the reader is left in suspense about what he has in mind.

Recent events in America make this dystopian book a good read.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Disclaimer: the author works in the same department as me, but I had to buy my own copy (!) and the opinions in this review are my own.

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